Peter’s shack stands at the foot an abbreviated wharf cut off just beyond the high-tide mark. Albert heads to the privy. Lantern-glow filters through a tattered curtain. A rough plank bench with an oval hole. A Sears & Roebuck Catalog nailed to the wall. Flimsy, foolscap pages flutter in a steady breeze rising from the darkness below, A damp iodine-smell from the harbor. Not enough to mask the ammoniac odor of stale piss. His stream splatters and splashes on the beach a dozen feet below. A fine mist plays on his knuckles, What’s it like in a gale? “Ah…” Buttoning his fly, he wipes his hands on the back of his trousers.
Peter pours red wine from a jug, “Have a glass!” Albert takes one, “Thanks! Here’s to your painting!” Peter nods. Downs his. Steps back. Waits for Albert to drink. Pours two more.
Tired. Wine on an empty stomach. Take it slow, “Peter, I sure am hungry! You? Should we go somewhere?” Peter scrounges around in a rusty-screened food-safe, “I am…. No. Here it is! Stew! A few days old…. Should be alright!” From under a faded gingham cloth he pulls out a chipped, stoneware bowl. Places it on the counter. Sniffs.
“Mulligan Stew! Been cool enough! Anyway, these things just get better with age.” Peter digs out a crusty Dutch-Oven from under the counter. Dumps the bowl into it, pushing out the last bits with his fingers, licking his index finger, staring-off into space, “Hm, it’ll be fine!” Pours a splash of wine over it, A blessing. Sets the whole thing on top of a wood-burning ship’s-stove.
“Albert,” pointing, gesturing back towards the food safe, “that wedge of cheese… Yea! And that bread. We’ll start on that. Cook this through again.” He chuckles. “Ought-a take care of any iffy parts!” Albert laughs with him. Peter turns his attention to the stove, Not drawing. He fans the firebox. Smoke and paper ash hit him in the face. He blows gently on the kindling. Adjusts the draft. A sudden gust. White, acrid smoke puffs around the lids. A spattering of rain hits the window. A squall beats against the stove pipe. “Whew! This weather! Glad we’re in for the evening!” Peter smiles. Looks at Albert, frowning, “Peter, I came here today… Ah, to ask you a favor. A really big favor.” Peter steps back. Glances at the stove, OK. It’s going. He raises his glass, “All right, what is it?”
Poking Albert in the chest, “Wait a minute! Not that damn boat trip?” Albert’s reaction…, “Yes! It IS! I knew it!” Peter’s face reddens, Slow down! He’s been a brick all day! This how I repay him? Wait a minute! Buttering me up? No. That’s not possible. Look at him!
Peter’s outburst hits Albert hard, ’S What I deserve! Huh? Peter smiles, “Lift your glass.” Raises his own, “To friendship!” Albert joins in the toast, “To friendship!” With a broad grin, “When do we leave? How long will it take?” Peter rolls his eyes.
“You mean, you’ll come? I mean… you…. You will?” Peter laughs, “All right! But let’s get on with it before I come to my senses!” Albert laughs. They pat each other on the shoulders. Peter pours more wine. Grabs the cheese and heads to the table, towing Albert by an elbow.
Albert dives into the mechanics of the trip, “Probably take a few days to get the boat ready…. A real passage! Not that far…. A coupl’a days and nights? You’ll go? You’re sure?” Peter nods.
Albert goes on, And on…. Peter is fading, Jug’s empty. He gets up to check on the stew. Opens a fresh bottle, “OK! That’s more than I need to know! Just, tell me. WHY are we doing this? It’s late October for Christ’s sake! Sailing around in August? That’s fine; but why do we have to go now?” He twists the corkscrew. Pops the cork with a gasp. Infused with warmth from wine he pours two more. Sets the bottle down. Walks over to plate the stew, “Hm…, sh’tuck a little.” Prodding at a blackened crust with a wooden spoon, “Plenty lef’ft!” Swaying, he brings the food to the table.
Albert’s head spins. A sharp-tined fork in one hand. A chunk of bread in the other. He digs in. The first swallow brings a surge of energy. Inspires another round of enthusiastic description of the joys of ocean sailing. Peter sits down. Scrapes his chair across the rough floor. They attack their food. Drain their glasses, Two more times. Tear at the bread, sopping up globs of smashed potatoes, carrots, and peas.
The rush of hunger abated. They push their plates away. Turn back to the wine. Albert’s breath tastes of beef and potato. Alcohol sharp and acid in his nostrils. Peter rolls a cigarette. Blue smoke curls upwards. Blown away by a sharp draft filtering through the wall, Getting colder. Warm enough. In here….
Wreckage clutters the table: cheese rinds, bread crumbs, the peels of a couple of apples, turning brown on their plates, OK, No avoiding it! Albert tells Peter about Freddy, “Down by the depot….” The sound of the incoming tide resounds beneath their feet. A draft cools Albert’s neck. Heat from the dying cook-stove reddens his cheek, covering his embarrassment.
“Returning to my room, late again. Remember? We were out with Andrew and Henderson. Made a late night of it. Passing the depot I heard footsteps on the deserted platform. No trains this late?”
“Stepping out of a pool of light. A cigarette ember arced out of the darkness. Lands at my feet, cart-wheeling end-for-end in a shower of sparks.”
“Footsteps, loud, and quick, rumble across the platform. A figure jumps down, sprawling on the gravel by the tracks. A man stands there weaving in a half crouch. Bright white sleeves flash to either side. A collar-less shirtfront shines in the dark.”
“A young man. My age. Drunk. Snatched at my elbow to steady himself. Gathering his bowler hat, he clamped it down hard on his head.”
“I tried to step away. His grip got tighter. We stood chest to chest. His face inches from mine. Sour breath. Alcohol and tobacco. Dark eyes, dark brows. Stubble. Flushed.”
“He spat out, ‘You leave h’err alone! She’s mine!’ I tried to back away. He pulled me close, hard. I bounced against him chest to chest. He bruised my arms. Knocked me down. His forearm laid across my windpipe. His knee ground into my chest, ‘I say SHTAY AWAY from HERR!’ Black eyes glowering. Hot breath stinging my nostrils. I couldn’t speak. Even if I knew what to say.”
“My confusion must have finally made an impression. Punctuating his words with his weight on my chest, ‘I marry Maria Luisa! You no see h’err!’ Sharp consonants spat in my face. I just lay there, dumbfounded.”
“Must have taken this as a sign of surrender. He staggered to his feet, pulling me up onto mine. We stood there, swaying. He still had me pinned by the elbows, ‘You un’erstand now, eh?’ He poked me in the chest, ‘I no wanna ha’f to tell you again!’”
“One last shove sent me sprawling. Beating his fist against his chest, ‘I marry h’err!’ He staggered down the tracks out of sight behind the depot.”
“I sat on a rail staring between my feet at the shiny coke and slag reflecting the streetlight’s glare, Fernando? Captain Santos’ mate. Wants her to marry him?”
“Does she?” Albert leans back.
Peter grunts out a few terse questions. Lets out a low, animal growl. Albert raises his hands, “Peter!”
Peter pushes his chair back, Smiling, “Don’t worry! I know. Nothing to be done.” Looking off to the side, “Wouldn’t help anyway!” Oh! I’d love to take that fellow in a good ole’ fashioned brawl!
Albert makes a vee with his fingers, Bum a smoke? Peter tosses a cigarette across. Rolls himself another. A faint smile on his lips, Don’t smoke eh? ’Xcept when you’ve had a few! Peter lights them both. Snaps the match off just below the burnt tip. Stabs at paint and gravy under his fingernails.
Albert inhales. Checks a reflexive cough. Ingests the smoke. A not unpleasant ache, Illuminates my lungs. He flicks a short ash onto his plate. Reaches for the wine, “Not that simple….”
“Remember that last class?” He tells Peter what happened on the beach with Diana, “Don’t think she’s a fool. Or that I enjoyed deceiving her!”
When he gets to the pigs he can’t help breaking down, giggling, “Couldn’t believe it!” They laugh until their guts ache. Imitating Diana’s clipped diction, “What’s that smell?”
“The look on her face!” Albert mimes a stage fright. Tears run down their cheeks, “Ah…, She just ran and ran….”
“Peter. I just don’t know what to do?” Albert smokes his cigarette down to the bitter end. Takes one last hot and sour drag. Crushes the butt, Slowly. Its ember sizzles against a damp apple-peel. He folds it over on itself. Presses down hard, burning the pad of his fingertip. Grim satisfaction curling his lips.